Brasilia, June 18
As Brazil hurtles toward an official Covid-19 death toll of 5,00,000 — second-highest in the world — science is on trial inside the country and the truth is up for grabs.
With the milestone likely to be reached this weekend, Brazil’s Senate is publicly investigating how the toll got so high, focusing on why President Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government ignored opportunities to buy vaccines for months while it relentlessly pushed hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug that rigorous studies have shown to be ineffective in treating Covid-19.
The nationally televised hearings have contained enough scientific claims, counterclaims and outright falsehoods to keep fact-checkers busy.
The scepticism has extended to the death toll itself, with Bolsonaro arguing the official tally from his own Health Ministry is greatly exaggerated and some epidemiologists saying the real figure is significantly higher — perhaps hundreds of thousands higher.
Dr Abdel Latif, who oversees an intensive care unit an hour from Sao Paulo, said the fear and desperation caused by the coronavirus have been compounded by misinformation and opinions from self-styled specialists and a lack of proper guidance from the government.
“We need real humane public health policy, far from the political fight and based on science and evidence,” he said.
Brazil’s reported death toll is second only to that of the US, where the number of lives lost has topped 6,00,000. Brazil’s population of 213 million is two-thirds that of the US.
Over the past week, official data showed some 2,000 Covid-19 deaths per day in Brazil, representing one-fifth the global total and a jump public health experts warn may reflect the start of the country’s third wave.
Bolsonaro has waged a 15-month campaign to downplay the virus’s seriousness and keep the economy humming. He dismissed the scourge early on as “a little flu” and has scorned masks. He was not chastened by his own bot with Covid-19. And he kept touting hydroxychloroquine long after virtually all others, including President Donald Trump, ceased doing so.
As recently as last Saturday, Bolsonaro received cheers upon telling a crowd of supporters that he took it when infected.
“The next day,” he declared, “I was cured.” He pushed hydroxychloroquine so consistently that the first of his four health ministers during the pandemic was fired and the second resigned because they refused to endorse broad prescription of the medicine, they told the Senate investigation committee.
The World Health Organization stopped testing the drug in June 2020, saying the data showed it didn’t reduce deaths among hospitalized patients.
The same month, the US Food and Drug Administration revoked emergency authorization for the drug amid mounting evidence it isn’t effective and could cause serious side effects.
Meanwhile, the notion that medicines like hydroxychloroquine work against Covid-19 is one of the main things the fact-checking agency Aos Fatos has been forced to debunk continually for the past year, according to Tai Nalon, its executive director. AP